Archive | In My Mind’s I

‘Suitcase Charlie’ a mystery with Jewish shadings

Posted on 14 November 2018 by admin

I’d like to tell you about a book that’s somewhat of an enigma: It actually borders on humor in the way it’s presented, but the story is dead (and I use that word because it truly fits the text) serious about matters that are important to us as Jews — especially since this is so soon after Kristallnacht.
Let’s see what I can tell you without giving away too much, because I really hope you’ll read it for yourself. It’s a very unusual addition to the mounds of previous writings that we call, collectively, “Jewish books.”
This is “Suitcase Charlie,” named for the way in which someone transported his murder victims — three of them — all young children. Not necessarily Jewish children, but there was a clue that defied meaning at first, yet couldn’t be ignored and was finally interpreted. On the soles of each small corpse’s feet were triangles — on one, pointing up; on the other, pointing down. A severed Jewish star.
The setting is Chicago, and if you ever lived in that city, you will identify throughout with the specifics as they’re woven by name into the story: the neighborhoods, the parks, the streets, the landmarks. But even if you don’t know the city, you’ll always be interested in, sometimes even amused by, the lead characters: a pair of policemen, partners assigned to do some legwork on this perplexing and frightening case. (No — not the suitcases — although that word also has a perplexing, frightening connotation here.)
Marvin Bondarowicz is Jewish; Hank Purcell is not. They are beat cops reporting to Lieutenant O’Herlihy, and we readers follow the first two as they follow — or don’t follow — the direction of the third. We learn how different they are at home from how they are on the street, which is pure old Chicago in every way. They break the rules, get called out, even threatened with being fired, but they persevere as the people they are, the only way they could ever be. So their search becomes as gritty as the city itself, and the two pull the reader along with their diverse, sometimes dangerous and sometimes diverting, actions and interactions.
“Suitcase Charlie” runs to 314 pages of the swiftest reading ever — the writer’s command of American/Chicago vernacular helps move you along at a quick clip through a lot of fast action. And that may be somewhat of a surprise coming from this author, because John Guzlowski was born in a displaced persons camp to Polish parents who met while slave-laboring under the Nazis.
Somehow, that little family wound up in Chicago, in a part of town that gave Guzlowski plenty of material to spark this story. As he grew up, he saw houses burned and people beaten and killed in the street. But he overcame in the biggest way. He graduated from the University of Illinois with a B.A. in English, then went on to get both M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Purdue, and finally became professor of English literature at Eastern Illinois University before retiring to Virginia, where he’s now a literary critic and poet of an award-winning collection, “Echoes of Tattered Tongues.” In much of his other writing — and there has been much — Guzlowski recalls those who didn’t survive the war. But in this one, he’s honoring those who didn’t survive Chicago.
The clue on the book’s back cover is not just an invitation; it’s a scene-setting puller-inner: “May 30, 1956: On a quiet corner of a working-class neighborhood, a suitcase is discovered…inside is the body of a young boy, hacked to pieces…Two hard-driving detectives are assigned to the case…Purcell still has flashbacks ten years after the Battle of the Bulge; Bondarowicz, a wisecracking Jewish cop who loves trouble as much as he loves booze…Their investigation takes them through the dark streets of Chicago in search of an even darker secret…”
This mystery will be solved on Dec. 4, with the book’s official publication.

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Kristallnacht’s anniversary is a good reminder

Posted on 09 November 2018 by admin

The calendar reminds us that it was exactly 80 years ago tomorrow evening when Hitler unleashed the event marking the beginning of the end of Europe’s Jewish communities.
Kristallnacht, on the Friday evening of Nov. 9 and continuing throughout Saturday, Nov. 10, was the Jewish introduction to unbridled, undiluted venom and hate. Whatever had been lurking about quietly up until that time was suddenly not quiet any longer, because not only existing anti-Semites, but all who were not Jewish, were encouraged to rise up and destroy something that belonged to their Jewish neighbors.
Hitler, as chancellor, had already begun taking anti-Jewish actions that he, himself, made legal in Germany. But who had ever seen, or experienced, anything as huge and organized as this? His new laws had severely regulated Jewish life, but suddenly everyone who was not Jewish was actually invited and encouraged to join in the physical destruction of anything of value — spiritually as well as monetarily — to his or her Jewish neighbors.
This is what happened on that single date: More than 1,000 synagogues were burned, more than 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses were destroyed and some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested on no charges at all and removed to the first concentration camps. Jews, like other ethnic groups in Germany and elsewhere, had often lived in identifiable neighborhoods. But the ghettos that followed Kristallnacht concentrated Jews and no others, squeezing the life out of them and amassing enough of them to make their transition to death camps an integral part of Hitler’s “Jewish solution.”
So, what did German Jews do during and after Kristallnacht? They were not foretellers of the future, and so they did what our people have always done when faced with any problem: They took care of it as best they could. They saved whatever they were able to carry to safety from their burning synagogues; they swept up the plate glass window shards covering the streets where their shops and offices had been. And then, for the most part, they went back to living as they had lived before.
Looking back, we must acknowledge how little else they could do and not speculate after-the-fact about what else they should have done. It’s too easy for us who were not there to ask why they didn’t leave immediately. But — where could they go? The Nazis wanted to get rid of Jews physically, not just encourage them to move out of Germany, so they were in fact making departures difficult or impossible. Forms of transportation and exit visas were scarce and expensive.
And of course, there was then — as there always is now — the usual reaction of hope: This madness had to be a one-time thing, didn’t it? Surely it wouldn’t happen again. And yet, it did happen, again and again, until millions of our people had been murdered.
This hope, this impossible dream, was the “new normal” for many Jews of that place and time, even as fury escalated against them, taking new, sinister forms that also took lives. So now: What do we learn from that past, after the recent horrendous Pittsburgh synagogue attack? My son there also uses the phrase “new normal” for Jews of his city. The only difference is this: Today, we acknowledge that vile things may happen again — and again — and we know we must try to prepare for them by securing ourselves, our homes and our institutions.
This may work for us because we do not live in a place where government policy is against us. Still, there are anti-Semites everywhere, some heavily armed, and we can’t anticipate their next moves. We can only take precautions that are possible. And hope.
Our broken America is certainly not Germany, but it no longer resembles those bucolic Norman Rockwell paintings of freedom for all. May God help us as we go forward to — we know not what. And may we learn from the past that we must help ourselves.

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Pittsburgh tells us to take a stand for all humanity

Posted on 09 November 2018 by admin

I wore the T-shirt to shul last Friday night. The message is so good, I thought; everyone should see it: “Take a Stand for Humanity,” it says. It’s the motto of the Illinois State Holocaust Museum, a reminder of my recent visit.
On Saturday morning, I traded it for my pink “survivor shirt” and went off early to take part in my 34th Komen Walk for the Cure. I’ve been “cured” twice, and it’s a pleasure to sit in the Survivor Tent, sip coffee and tell young, newly diagnosed women that, yes indeed, there is lots of good life after breast cancer.
Then I went home to learn that life had gone out for 11 people in Pittsburgh, folks in my hometown who had been worshipping while I was walking, who had been wearing tallitot while I was in pink, who paid the ultimate price — not because of cancer, but simply because of being Jewish.
I love the city of my birth, my education, my career start — which was at the Pittsburgh Jewish weekly of that time. I love its many bridges over its three rivers and the breathtaking view of “The Point,” where those rivers come together, often called “Pittsburgh’s Front Door.” I can still sing in my mind the old songs of the great steel city Pittsburgh once was, and about Joe Magarac, its imaginary but iconic steel worker.
I have lived in Dallas for almost 40 years and it is very much my home. But Pittsburgh will always be my heart’s home. And my heart broke with the news that Tree of Life, one of many synagogues within walking distance in a very close, very Jewish neighborhood, had been chosen by a demented anti-Semite as the place to release his pent-up rage with vile shouts and fatal gunshots.
Many people know I’m a Pittsburgher, so I at first received many phone calls and emails asking if my family (so much of it is still there) was OK. And then came more, saying how thankful they were that none of my family had been among the 11. I appreciated that because it was said with genuine good feeling. But in my heart, I was not thankful, because every one of those dead was a part of my Pittsburgh family. Theirs were old family names I have known all my life. If I didn’t know any of those particular people personally, I have known some of their families. There is no difference in my mourning.
I’ve learned that a high school classmate of a former Pittsburgher I know here in Dallas was among the Tree of Life dead. I have learned that Holocaust survivor Judah Samet was a few minutes late arriving at the synagogue and was in the parking lot when the shots were fired. He had evaded death years ago in Bergen-Belsen and might have confronted it head-on again had he been on time. I suspect from the family name of one who did not survive that she was a distant cousin of my Boubby the Philosopher. My Pittsburgh cousin who keeps adding leaves to our greatly extended family tree can let me know.
I’ve also learned that security was non-existent at Tree of Life, with police presence only for the High Holidays. And I suspect this has been true for all those other nearby synagogues and for the Jewish day schools as well. My own son works at the largest of these; his succinct comment was “I guess this will be our new normal.” I suspect the attitude in Pittsburgh — if there was ever any thought given to such horrors as this — was “It will never happen here.” But it did. I bless our own Federation for making all of us look squarely at what might never happen here, but prepare for it anyway.
I wore that same T-shirt again to the community memorial gathering Sunday evening. It is surely time for all of us to Take a Stand for Humanity.

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Fellow alumnus wins Nobel for chemistry

Posted on 25 October 2018 by admin

A graduate of my high school has just won a Nobel Prize.
I’m holding before me a front-page clipping from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and looking at the smile (is it triumph? or shock?) on the face of Frances Arnold, 62, now a California Institute of Technology professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry. She is one-third of a trio honored for “harnessing evolutionary principles to create new proteins.” The other two are men. She is only the fifth woman ever to score a chemistry Nobel; the most recent before her was almost 10 years ago.
So, what can I say except: What happened to all the rest of us who went to Taylor Allderdice? It was, and still is, a public school, a neighborhood school. It always did, and still does, have an excellent academic reputation — such that people with children often factor that into their home-buying choices. But — a Nobel?
In my own class — which exited those somewhat hallowed halls more than two decades before Dr. Arnold graduated — was a young man who received his doctorate in art history from Yale and retired after a long career as director of the Frick Museum in New York City. I thought that was tops — but not a Nobel. Arnold distinguished herself at Princeton and is now one of the few, according to the news release, who can claim simultaneous memberships in the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering.
What a surprising list of achievements. But what’s even more surprising is what the achiever says herself about her high school days: “I didn’t take chemistry then. I was too busy cutting classes.” Talk about late bloomers. And she wasn’t a child of wealth and privilege, either: While she was at Allderdice, she worked part-time at Walt Harper’s Attic, a Pittsburgh club owned by a mildly nationally known local jazz pianist. And after graduation, before college, she drove a Yellow Cab.
At some point, our high school established a Hall of Fame, and one of its first members was Iris Rainer Dart, who has written nine novels. Best known is “Beaches,” which later became a film starring Bette Midler and Mayim Bialik. (This should clue you that the subject matter would resonate with us because the author was Jewish — as were many students of Allderdice in that long-gone past.)
Iris also had a humble childhood; her father owned and operated a neighborhood hardware store, known citywide for the kind of appealing disarray that led to a sort of cult belief: Virtually anything could be found on its shelves if one only looked long enough. Which was probably true. So, her literary achievement is not to be looked down upon. Still — it’s no Nobel.
Dr. Arnold’s big prize comes from “harnessing the power of evolution,” according to Goran K. Hansen, who is secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Her work is being used to create sustainable biofuels, the Academy says, thereby “contributing to a greener world.” And now, for the winning statistics: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded 110 times to 180 individuals since 1901 — a quite small but incredibly distinguished collection of scientists.
It’s now obvious that somewhere along the line, after a lackluster high school career, Allderdice’s winner somehow took to heart the motto that stands forever, carved in stone over our school’s main entrance even before its doors first opened in 1927: “Know Something. Do Something. Be Something.” Or maybe not. Maybe it just happened. Sometimes in life, things just happen.
I suspect this Nobelist’s next honor will be election to the Taylor Allderdice High School Hall of Fame. Given her record there, plus her Nobel, she may just laugh at this. But she may embrace it. I’ll never know. Still, I’ll always be wondering: What in the world happened to the rest of us?

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Shoah museum near Chicago has myriad options

Posted on 18 October 2018 by admin

I have just returned from a two-day visit to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, located – not, as you might expect, in the heart of Chicago, but in a northern suburb named Skokie. The chosen site speaks volumes about Holocaust history and the collective power of its Survivors.
After World War II’s opening of the infamous concentration and death camps and the liberation of those still alive there, many Survivors who made it to the United States somehow wound up in Skokie, which became a town whose population was about three-quarters Jewish. And among those Jews clustered some 7,000 Survivors, which is why in the late 1970s, a group of Neo-Nazis banded together and picked Skokie to make another stand against them.
But this time, there was no cowering, running or hiding. Many Survivors had not yet spoken about their horrific experiences at Nazi hands, but they decided to make their own stand, and were joined by thousands more, Jewish and not. On the day originally scheduled for a Nazi march, it was the citizens of Skokie who marched and had their own victory. The museum opened on that same location in 2009, and it is now the third-largest Holocaust museum in the world, behind only Yad Vashem and the U.S. national museum in Washington, D.C.
Notice its official name: Holocaust Museum and Education Center. As has our own Dallas facility, which went from being a Holocaust Museum to its current Holocaust Museum Center for Education and Tolerance, and will soon become the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, the thrust of both institutions has changed with the passage of time. As there are fewer and fewer Survivors to give personal-experience testimony, emphasis has shifted toward future prevention of such past horrors, with outreach to students and their teachers of primary importance. As does our own center, the one in Skokie is grooming future “Upstanders” to take personal action against even the smallest violation of human rights.
I won’t try to detail for you the many and varied programs that go on under the roof on the massive Illinois structure, the many opportunities for personal involvement, and the many exhibits that fill its rooms and line its hallways. My favorite – if there can be such a thing in such a setting – is called “Stories of Survival: Object – Image – Memory.” Susan Abrams, the museum’s CEO, calls the collection “an exploration of the meaning behind the everyday things that become so much more.”
So, the viewer can see actual items that Survivors clung to during their ordeals and brought with them afterward: a doll’s dress – a coin – a few keys on a ring – a bracelet – a photograph. But what is most exceptional here is how these items, actually in cases, are further illustrated with wall-mounted photos that include comments by those who saved and still treasure them.
And these objects go far beyond what the visitor would initially expect to find in a Holocaust museum: not all are from Holocaust Survivors, but from Survivors of other genocides, including Cambodia, Sudan, Rawanda… The message is frighteningly clear: human suffering on a mass scale has continued on after “our” Holocaust; we must bring up new generations to stop them from happening in the future.
I shake the hand of Fritzie Fritzshall, once a teenage girl among several hundred older women, each of whom would give her a crumb or two of their daily bread ration in turn for her word: “I made a promise to those women in Auschwitz,” she says now, “that if I survived, I would tell the world my story.” And she has, in one of the biggest ways possible: she is currently president of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.
There are many great things there, more than I could fully experience in just two days. But now, I’m looking ahead to great things here, when our new Dallas museum opens on Sept. 17, 2019.

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Garments of years past bring back memories

Posted on 04 October 2018 by admin

January will mark 35 years that I have lived in my three-bedroom Dallas condo. My husband and I made a major downsizing move then, when the last child went to college. But that involved big things, mainly furniture that we’d no longer need, which was easy. Now, I’m about the business of going through smaller things – the collections of years, stashed in drawers or closets and never touched. This is much harder.
There was a ritual for middle-class Jewish brides in the time (1955) and place (Pittsburgh) of my marriage – and other females of my age cohort say this was true in many other Jewish enclaves: Mother took daughter shopping for her “trousseau” – a French word meaning “to bundle,” which is what brides-to-be did on that outing.
Every city of any size had a street filled with Jewish merchants who dealt in bedding, table coverings and lingerie, and mother helped daughter choose her sheets, blankets, towels, tablecloths, lingerie and nightwear. Some girls had looked ahead and already stocked their “hope chests” with some things they’d sewed or crocheted or needle-pointed themselves. But there was still a bundle of stuff left for that premarital shopping spree.
I recalled mine clearly very recently, as I went through a large drawer in a bedroom chest, finding slips, nightgowns and peignoirs (if you don’t know that word, please look it up), unworn and untouched for several decades.
What startled me most, after first finding this trove of forgotten treasures, was their pristine condition. Yes, all had been worn and washed and worn again, a long, long time ago. But all of them could pass for new. And the reason, I think, is that they are all made of nylon – a kind of nylon I haven’t seen in ages. I would call it the fabric equivalent of iron.
As I gathered up many, many slips in many colors (how many girls or women wear slips today? How many even know what a slip is?) and nightgowns in bridal white with matching peignoirs, I couldn’t get over how beautiful they still are. I called a much younger cousin who I know has never worn a slip in her life and told her about my discovery. She said a vintage clothing place would salivate over everything. But I just bundled (“trousseau-ed,” perhaps?) the stuff up for the Goodwill. I hesitated for only a moment, thinking I might keep one slip with beautiful lace flowers enhancing the nylon, but quickly added it to the pile. The memory, without the item, will be enough.
All of which has me thinking about another “iron” garment – a white sweater that had belonged to my mother, who passed away in 1984 and which she had worn for years before that. I’ve had it ever since: a simple knit cardigan, soft and light. I can’t be sure of the fabric because the content label is long gone, but I would guess it’s acrylic, or Orlon, but most likely with some of that nylon mixed in – because I’ve been wearing and washing and wearing it again all these 35 years, the same as the number of years I’ve been in this condo.
And the sweater lives on and will continue to do so, because it’s my favorite: feather-weight but warm, it stays on the front seat of my car throughout the hot-weather season, to go with me into all those buildings where air conditioning keeps the atmosphere too cold for outdoor summer clothing. As our weather has finally been showing signs of fall, I’ll be giving it a last washing for this year, then fold it and stow it on a shelf, where it will be ready for action in 2019.
(A final note: Some brides of my era have saved their wedding gowns. I gave mine to a community theater for its costume collection. As far as I know, it’s still going strong – another iron garment of a bygone time.)
Harriet Gross can be reached at harrietgross@sbcglobal.net

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Wondering why fewer choose medical careers

Posted on 26 September 2018 by admin

I’ve just read a provocative article by syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, who isn’t carried by any local papers in our area. (I’m always so grateful to far-away folks who keep me informed about things I might totally miss otherwise.) This recent column is titled “The Doctor Is (Not) In,” and bears an alarming subtitle: “Too few young people are going into medicine.”
A small number of my own doctors today are Jewish. I didn’t pick them because of that; it just happens that they are specialists on my current health plan. But Jewish doctors were a staple of my life until I married and moved away from my hometown. I think that was because my father was a doctor, and whatever I needed was always taken care of by one of his friends. I wonder now if medicine was a second career choice for some of them, as it was for my dad.
He wanted to be an engineer, and his first professional degree was in architectural engineering. But after graduation, he learned rather quickly that Jews were not welcome in that field; in those days, prospective employers asked prospective employees their religion, and Judaism was not on the approved list. I guess that wasn’t quite as blatant as “No Irish Need Apply,” but it was just as effective for exclusion. My father actually got a job with a company that just plain forgot to ask; however, when someone remembered and posed the question, he wouldn’t lie, and that was the end of his engineering career. “The only security for a Jew is to be his own boss.” That’s what he said at the time, and in order to do that, he returned to school and became a physician.
(That silent ban on Jews being hired as engineers continued for many, many years. When I was a college student in the mid-‘50s, we used to call accounting and business administration “Jewish engineering.” We were laughing about it then, but it wasn’t a joke…)
My father’s medical specialty became diagnostics – the closest thing in his second field to his chosen first, because he could study the body the way he would study a blueprint to figure out how all the parts fit and should work together. Then he was able to diagnose many illnesses that other doctors could not, and became known in his medical community for that elusive skill. But he was also known as the only doctor who – in those precious few moments between patients – would be reading Architectural Digest, the magazine that to this day deals with how individual building parts fit together rather than unitized structures.
In Russia, when women were the medical majority, it made medicine something of a second-class profession. In the U.S., women weren’t welcomed into it for many years; they were like Jews who wanted to be engineers. To this day, I am friends with the one woman in my college class who went to medical school; she never told anyone – not even her own mother – that she had applied until after she was accepted.
She is now retired after a long, successful career in child psychiatry, an “OK” field for a woman. Not Jewish herself, she has followed those in her class who were; one of the best left medicine to become president of a prestigious university whose specialty is engineering.
Has inclusion “cheapened” medicine as a career choice? Or are fewer young people choosing it because doctors are no longer looked upon as caring healers, but as cogs in the wheel of “a nationwide system in which the ruling denizens are huge corporate entities…”? Whatever – the Association of American Medical Colleges projects a U.S. shortage of 105,000 doctors by the year 2030.
Who remembers, today, “First do no harm”? Today, STEM is the mantra of professional education, an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Perhaps sadly, the M does not also encompass Medicine…

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Apologies to those I’ve offended

Posted on 13 September 2018 by admin

“‘You are old, Father William,’ the young man said, ‘and your hair is exceedingly white. But yet you continue to stand on your head. Do you think at your age this is right?’”
These words are from “Alice in Wonderland.” I surely qualify as old at 84, and my hair goes with it. But I have never stood on my head in my whole long life (although once I was able to lie flat on my back and touch my toes to the floor behind my head).
Still, as we journey through these Ten Days of Teshuvah, I make the head-banging effort of making things right with those I have wronged during the past year. Our tradition tells us that T’filla – Tzedakah – and Teshuvah may avert the stern decree. The first is easy enough; I’ve been praying since Selichot. The second: I open my pocketbook as widely as I can. But the third is the hardest: there are so many deserving my apologies.
So I’m starting with a group shoutout to all of you who read me weekly: I know I‘ve written things that annoy you, that you don’t agree with or that sometimes (not too frequently, I hope) even offend. So although I cannot say I’m sorry for having written them – because part of a columnist’s calling is the hope that words will stimulate thoughts and reactions, both positive and negative – I do ask forgiveness for any mental discomfort I’ve caused. (Remember: I love to hear from those of you who disagree as well as those who don’t.)
There’s a little Rosh Hashanah ditty that used to be a staple song for Jewish preschoolers. Its words are wonderfully simple: “Let’s be friends and make amends. Now’s the time to say ‘I’m sorry.’ Take my hand and I’ll take yours – Let’s be friends for always.” I’ve always thought we adults can learn a lesson from this, the essence of these 10 penitential days, which — if we’re honest with ourselves — are never enough for all our necessary apologizing.
Myself, I wonder if it’s too late to apologize for errors of all kinds — not just in the past year, but far before that. It seems the older I get, the more my hair turns into that of Father William, the more I remember what I’m truly sorry for. And sometimes, it’s too late to offer a personal “I’m sorry.” But I think that may be part of what Kever Avot is for; when I visit the cemetery as the New Year approaches, I tell my sorry stories to those who no longer walk this earth, hoping that they can hear me anyway and forgive me.
It’s a rule of nature, a law of life: people who actively interact with others make mistakes and need to say they’re sorry. The only way to avoid Teshuvah is to have lived as a hermit for the past year without saying a word to anyone. But that has never been our Jewish way of life. We are a people, each one responsible in a very subtle but very true and vital way for every other. When we give money to our Federations, we’re helping to shoulder that responsibility. Example: Although we can’t personally apologize to every Israeli for our stateside disagreements with their country’s policies, our Tzdakah helps take care of their real, personal needs.
Well, the Ten Days are half gone already, and I still have a lot of apologizing to do, so I’d better get busy telling many other folks what I’m sorry for, and how sorry I am, and how I want to be connected – to hold hands like preschoolers and sing “let’s be friends for always.” I hope my conscience will be clear enough to stand with my congregation on Yom Kippur, as together we can ask God’s forgiveness because we’ve first obtained it from our fellows. May we all live long enough to apologize again next year.

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The difficult decisions to make in old age

Posted on 07 September 2018 by admin

I recently received a difficult but thoughtful post from a dear old friend in Chicago. It poses the kind of important decision all of us must face from time to time; hers has come at the time of the approaching New Year.
When I say “dear,” I mean we have been friends for 62-plus years. When I say “old,” I mean on the cusp of 90. Now, she is in an assisted living facility in that same city, fighting kidney disease. In her case, the body is weak, but the mind is strong. Very strong. And that’s her dilemma for Rosh Hashanah.
Friend Bobbie has two daughters — one in Pennsylvania, the other quite close to her in Chicago. The nearby one has Parkinson’s. She would now like to relocate to be closer to her sister and three nieces in the same area; she has a good husband and one daughter (but she is away at college) and is anticipating need for support for herself as her disease progresses. She herself has been her mother’s primary support for a long, long time, and she wants to take her mother along with her.
Bobbie is nothing if not a realist. “I’m really not wanting to move,” she writes, “and they all know that. My friends are all gone now. My daughter and son-in-law are all the family I have here, and I’m not strong enough to live without them nearby…too many runs to the ER. And it’s a toss of the coin now when I will go into end-stage 5 kidney failure.”
Dialysis would be the only thing to keep Bobbie alive at this point, and she doesn’t know yet if that’s even a possibility — or if she would even want it if it is. In a few days, the vascular surgeon will determine if her veins are strong enough to handle a fistula — and that would take up to three months of healing before it’s ready for use. “They could make an entry into my stomach,” she writes. “Then I could do my own dialysis at home every evening. But it may mean there’s already too much calcification for anything to be done. If so, I’ll be gone within a month.”
Her mind is still 100 percent, which she now calls both a strength and a curse. She hasn’t even said she’d want dialysis, given the advanced gravity of her disease. “I have to educate myself more on the subject to make an informed decision,” she says. “On the positive side, I still have some time ahead of me. But I’m physically feeling my age, and I’m fighting a kind of depression: I’d like not to have to think about this all the time, but that’s impossible, since everything I do is a constant reminder…”
My old friend Bobbie has never been a quitter. She’s faced some very difficult life situations — a sad divorce; an addicted son she’s had to cut entirely out of her life to ensure her own peace and safety. This current dilemma shows she isn’t quitting now. She’d like to live, but she doesn’t yet know if there’s much time left for living, or if the strain of a major move might take the greater part or all of it. That’s her reality.
The one thing she has never mentioned is wanting to die. Some in her position might wish for death, might even think suicide. Not Bobbie. But “This live-or-die stuff is getting to me,” she says. “It’s as though the Sword of Damocles is hanging over my head…” Yet her sign-off tells me she’s getting ready to go to her living facility’s Labor Day party!
What’s the best response to a post like that? “Shanah Tovah” certainly can’t be right. But I’ll send her what support I can over the miles as she makes the (perhaps final) decision(s) of her life. So I ask: Please add my friend to your own prayer lists. Debbie Friedman’s prescient words, “for renewal of (body and) spirit,” invoke the only thing possible now.

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Roth Patrimony: a guide on how to say goodbye

Posted on 29 August 2018 by admin

It’s no secret that I love Philip Roth. He’s my favorite author of all time, because of his deft use of English (the language I love almost as much as my blood relatives) and his total honesty in what he writes in that language. I thought, over these many years of reading and rereading him, that I’d gotten him figured out. Think again, O deluded self.
I’ve just reread Patrimony, Roth’s account of his father’s descent to death. The title itself poses a question. Matrimony and patrimony are both derived from Latin: the first from the word mater — mother; the second from the word pater — father. But in our translations, look at the difference: Matrimony equals marriage; patrimony equals what’s passed from father to son. What a difference.
I’ve also always thought this was the most personal of all Roth’s many books, and I still think I’m right. But my rereading has helped me realize that all the others are just as personal, the difference being that he has fictionalized them. However, not this, which is 100 percent first-person feeling, right out in the open with the all raw emotions it exudes.
Follow with me, if you are a Roth lover — or even if not: In Goodbye Columbus, his first book, he is the boy having his earliest sexual experiences, making mistakes and suffering from them. In Nemesis, that terrifying tale of polio in the 1950s, he is the young man for whom devotion to duty causes great mental and physical suffering. In American Pastoral, he is the “golden one,” that fair-haired “god-on-earth” to whom all is given — but ultimately has all taken away.
These may not be actual experiences, but they are certainly drawn from Roth’s personal history, played out in his own exemplary fiction. Taken together, and if read as I propose, the total of Roth’s voluminous output equals his own life in its entirety.
I can’t be the only one who thinks this. However, I’ve never seen or heard it articulated just this way before.
Patrimony is a wonder, a deeply personal and no-holds-barred look at a son’s struggle as his father’s life ends — perhaps even more than the father struggles to deal with his own inevitable, forthcoming death. The father’s troubles are basically physical, although physicality calls into play much else; the son’s troubles are basically rooted in memory: How could I have forgotten X? Why didn’t I handle Y differently? Have I ever made clear to my father how highly I really regard him? And if I haven’t — why not? These are questions all of us ask at the bedside of a terminal parent, but not all of us can answer them. Roth struggles to do so, and he succeeds. He is able to identify the patrimony — what passes from his father to him. And it is not always pleasant, not always what he might want, but he recognizes it for what it is.
Many of us have experienced this painful role-reversal, unimaginable in our lives until it happens: We may become the parent to a parent of our own. It is not a welcome or easy stage of existence to deal with, but we have no choice. Roth takes up the challenge and tells us all about it, in all its pain, with all the soul-searching, the self-accusations, the love that is in every thought and every word — even though the latter might not sound exactly that way. This book is a manual for how to say goodbye when that is all there is left to say. And it is the ultimate, very human, picture of esteemed author Philip Roth.
My own parents are long gone. Now, I’m passing my new appreciation to my children, asking them to send it along to my grandchildren — and beyond. If you have current struggles, or have ever struggled with these issues, I recommend this book: Philip Roth’s remarkably honest best. Because someday, you’ll need it.

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